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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #45

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Preschool Education

Until recently, the government has ignored this field entirely, letting the private sector fill the need, which is substantial.

Despite the mushrooming of private “Tadikas (Malay acronym for TAman DIdekan KAnak Kanak (Children’s Guidance Nursery),” there is minimal regulation. It is strictly a case of buyer (or parents) beware! One would expect at least minimal safety and health standards. Consequently there are regular outbreaks of viral and other communicable diseases at these preschools; parents have to use their own judgment. Some are located near noisy, highly polluting industrial plants or at busy intersections. Like other private educational institutions, these preschools are also highly segregated racially. As they cater for the well to do, or at least those who can afford the fees, there is also social segregation.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) controls the curriculum and mandates teachers’ qualifications. Like all other MOE directives, there is little room for local creativity. The redeeming part is that these mandates are impressive only on paper; the reality is far different. Many of the establishments, especially those run by Islamic organizations, pay only lip service to the ministry’s mandates. Most of the facilities are extended “mom and pop” operations located in private homes. Non-governmental entities, in particular Islamic bodies, are also active. Major corporations who are eager to establish private colleges and universities have yet to discover this large, profitable and unmet market. I anticipate that in a few years they will; then we would have quality facilities that would be protective of their brand names. Today only the Montessori group is expanding.

The highest priority is for government-funded facilities in rural and poor

urban areas. Currently there are some facilities run by governmental agencies other than MOE. If the government were to involve itself in preschools catering for groups other than the poor, then it should be only through the general tax policies, like making tuition expenses tax deductible for those attending Tadikas that met strict state criteria like having their enrollments reflect Malaysian society. Exposing the young at an early age to a multicultural environment would be good for them as well as for the nation.

James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate in economics, notes that state intervention in pre-schools for disadvantaged children is not only socially just and morally right but also a sound economic investment with proven generous returns.

Most public policy initiatives like the NEP face the equity-efficiency dilemma; investment in preschool for disadvantaged children is the rare exception. Focusing only on the subsequent gains in earnings, such investments yield returns as high as 17 percent. Besides, there are other important but not readily quantifiable gains, such as reduced fertility, crime rates, and other dysfunctional behaviors like drug abuse.

A “good” family is the most reliable predictor of success for children, including their probability of going to college. It is the most important variable, more important than parental income or education. “Good” means a stable family headed by both parents with no absent father figure, and where the young are properly acculturated to the norms and values of society, and where the parents engage in such parental activities as reading to their children at bedtime.

Children from “bad” families contribute disproportionately to crime, drug abuse, and other dysfunctional behaviors. “Bad” is where the mother is divorced or abandoned, and the family is without a father figure. In America, such “bad” families are primarily among minorities, giving rise to the unfortunate association of race. However, similar dynamics are seen in “bad” white families, as those in rural Appalachia.

The benefits of childhood intervention are highest the earlier it is instituted. The government’s Tadika programs are for children five years old. Experiences with the American Perry Project suggest starting as early as three or four. At that early age the emphasis would be more on providing a good childcare environment.

The preschool years are critical to instilling positive values, habits, and other desirable traits. The benefits are seen in both cognitive (thinking) and non-cognitive (behavioral) areas like motivation, perseverance, and self-restraint. These skills if acquired early would ease future learning; skill begets skill; learning begets more learning.

Providing superior childcare and preschools to those from deprived families would help nullify the negative influence of the “bad” family. I would extrapolate Heckman’s observation by extending the intervention even much earlier, to the prenatal environment. Effective prenatal care, heavily subsidized if need be, would ensure healthy babies, and subsequent enhanced quality of human capital, but more on healthcare later.

This is the lesson from Scandinavia. There the rates of families headed by single mothers are also high, but because of the ready availability of subsidized quality childcare and preschool programs, their societies are not burdened by the same social pathology, and their workforce remains highly productive.

If Malaysia were to provide such facilities in rural and poor urban areas, it would have significant positive impacts. Additionally by freeing these poor young mothers to enter the work force, the economic benefits they accrue would help defray the subsidy. These mothers would also learn important life skills instead of being cooped up at home taking care of their young, a chore they are not good at anyway.

Providing preschool facilities would not be as politically sexy as building universities, but in the long term, that would prove to be the more fruitful investment.

Next: Keeping Malaysians Healthy


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